Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Tricky Subalpine Warbler

A Subalpine Trap : an interesting “cantillans” makes things hard !

by Andrea Corso, Michele Viganò, Ottavio Janni & THE MISC

The Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans (sensu latu) complex is one of the most interesting Sylvia taxa in the Western Palearctic; its variety of taxa, complicated taxonomy and identification – not least its obscure nomenclature, which warrants an in-depth review (see Brambilla et al. 2006, 2008, 2009; Baccetti, et al. 2007; Svensson, in prep.; Corso & Janni, pers.obs.) – its distribution and the poorly-known female/juvenile plumages of the various taxa makes it truly intriguing for any serious birder.

When faced with a bird that does not neatly fall into a box, the identification of Subalpine Warblers becomes even harder, and this is the story of one of those moments that forces you to question your knowledge, which all of a sudden does not seem to be nearly as thorough as you thought! We are all quite familiar with Subalpine Warblers, since Italy is undoubtedly the best country in Europe to study all the various taxa and observe them in large numbers both during migration and on their breeding grounds. But when coincidence and variability throw a spanner in the works, then we all need to go further.

Shirihai et al. (2001), in their seminal work on Sylvia Warblers, report that “Specific separation of female-like (including 1st winter) plumages of Ménétries’s from Subalpine poses one of the greatest field identification challenges among Sylvia.”

We realised just how true this is in November 2012 in our birding paradise, the island of Linosa. It was the evening of November 5th, and we were quite happy with our haul over the previous few days: an obliging Daurian Shrike just 50 metres away from an Olive-backed Pipit (3rd of the autumn in Sicily), a Rustic Bunting in a tiny vineyard near our house, several Yellow-browed Warblers alongside with some good snorkelling – try doing that on Shetland in November! -and more…

AC was carefully studying an Acro showing characters of Marsh Warbler, a rare migrant in Sicily, when on the same olive tree a Sylvia sp. appeared on the highest branches. It was very pale, uniformly sandy coloured with…a strikingly contrasting BLACK TAIL !!!! Alarm bellsstarted to ring in the rarity-hunter’s addled brain…

The most obvious ID was Subalpine, but in a place like Linosa everything is possible, and Ménétries’s Warbler is already on Italy’s impressive list (536 species despite having very few active birders – the list could be much longer!).

After a quick glimpse the bird flew off, showing a featureless body with an obvious black tail: almost like a juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher (or a Blackstart).

Do you know that feeling when the heart is pounding, breathing is as difficult as it would be under water, walking is as hard as having wooden legs or walking on the moon (to quote The Police J )… OK, that was the feeling AC had. He alerted Igor Maiorano and the others to have a careful look as this could be “something” really epic.

For the next half an hour, we studied the bird: in the field the tertials did not look particularly contrasting and the pale fringes disappeared in the intense Sicilian sun, so they that they looked plain, even under prolonged observation! The alula was almost solidly black with broad and obvious pale fringing, contrasting as a black patch against the uniform wing, the primary projection appeared very short, the wing itself being rather round-looking with a round-tipped impression, the wing-tip falling short the longest undertail coverts (in albistriata it is level with them or longer), the bill appeared deep-based and rather down curved but quite short, the base of the lower mandible was clearly pinkish tinged, the lores were very pale, and the eye-ring very bright and conspicuous.

The sunset arrived too soon, and OJ, MV and several others did not arrive in time to see the bird, as they were birding on the opposite side of the island (the area that we call “the dark side” since there is no mobile coverage and is always risky to go birding there ).

But the next day the bird was still in the same trees, and we all could study the bird in the field: the contrasting black tail was impressive but as noticed by AC the previous day, it was re-growing !

The bird uttered a call unlike Ménétries’s Warbler calls we known, but it also sounded different, at least slightly, from typical Italian Subalpines, obviously from the diagnostic double note of albistriata, and of course totally unlike Moltoni’s wren-like trill. A sound recording was secured by MV to obtain sonograms.

The tail pattern was also interesting: T6 (or R6 if you like) was a better fit for Subalpine sensu latu, being almost wholly pale but for a long, narrow tongue” running along the outer edge of the inner web; but the pattern of T5 (R5) was however better for Ménétries’s, being fully slate grey with a blackish tinge and a well-marked white apical notch.

We were still a little puzzled, chiefly due to the tail pattern and colour and contrast and the short-looking primary projection.

We decided to ask the opinion of our friend Yoav Perlman on the plumage – as he has handled and observed in the field far more Ménétries’s Warblers than we have – and to consult our sound-guru Magnus Robb, from the Sound Approach to Birding team, for an opinion on the call.

However, before their opinions arrived later on, the night brings good counsel and often nice dreams (in OJ’s case,he dreamt of the Daurian Shrike two nights before actually finding it!) … and the day after we decided that the mystery Sylvia was most likely a “Subalpine Warbler” – perhaps from the North African population (inornata) – which had lost is tail and was re-growing it with an adult-type pattern and COLOUR. Tertial’s pattern and call sonograms indicate this identification.

All in all, as Martin says – always learning !

TAIL PATTERN: tail pattern is reported to be a very helpful clue in several references, including Alstrom et al. (1991) and Shirihai, et al. (2001), with the T5 (R5) on adult-type tail constantly illustrated as different in the two species, Subalpines showing more white, as a wedge intruding into the feather along the shaft, and the pale patch itself less well-defined, while in Ménétries’s the apical “notch” or “blotch” of T5 is smaller, rounder, and very well-defined against a more intensely blackish ground colour. The odd Sylvia from Linosa has re-grown its tail into an adult-type (the feathers being dark and round-tipped instead of sand-colored, pointed, and narrow as in juveniles): T5 is a better fit for Ménétries’s, but we found an obvious amount of variability in tail pattern among the “Subalpines” complex, with some “Subalpines” showing much less white on T5 and T4 (or nothing on T4) and with the pale areas being smaller and more demarked (Shirihai, et al. (2001), but mostly see Svensson, in prep. and photos). Also, in juvenile “Subalpines” the tail is surely much paler than in our bird and in Ménétries’s, more sandy-buffish brown, while in adult “Subalpines” is darker grey, sooty grey or dark grey blackish tinged (mostly on the distal part). So the re-growing tail on our mystery bird showing adult-like colour is obviously contrasting with the pale juvenile body!

TERTIAL PATTERN: this is one of the clinching characters and therefore one of the most important. It should be underlined that in the field it was very hard to really be sure about the pattern, as in some angles and with intense light the well-defined pale fringes fade away and almost disappear, making the entire tertials look rather pale and uniform. Also, caution should be paid on any moulted or worn tertials, where the fringing can narrower or be less well-defined than usual on Subalpines. In our bird, the photos show the fringes to be rather bright and well-defined, with a rather demarked dark centre, making the bird a“Subalpine”. Fringes are usually better defined in S Italian taxon and on albistriata, less so in Moltoni’s Warbler (but what about Western taxa such Spanish and N African ones?), but this is however quite variable in all taxa. In Ménétries’s Warbler, the dark centres on all tertials are not well demarked, being less dark and with less defined borders than in Subalpine, being in fact diffuse and not much contrasting with the suffuse fringings, all in all they appear more uniform and less obviously patterned.

BILL: the bill appeared rather heavy and broadly based; this is better for Ménétries’s (Shirihai, et al.2001) as this species usually has a broader-based, often longer and more decurved bill than Subalpine (even more than a Sardinian Warbler in fact ! – see figure). However, without direct comparison this is pretty hard to judge in the field, and this feature is better assessed in the hand. Also, sure it is variable among sex/age and taxa groups of “Subalpine”.

CALLS: the calls are distinctive, but we read in both Svensson et al (2010) and in Alstrom et al. (1991) that they variable, with the latter authors reporting that Ménétries’s also has a “dack” call which might resemble some Subalpines calls. Our bird from Linosa had a call that matched “nominate” Subalpine, but which to our ears sounded a bit different from those we are used to in Italy. Could it be an inornata from Tunisia, whose calls we don’t know ? Also, it would be nice to find any sound recording of the “dack” call of Ménétries’s, the one reported in some quoted references…

WING PATTERN : Shirihai, et al. (2001) mention differences in the alula pattern, with Ménétries’s showing in general a blacker centred alula contrasting more with the rest of the wing, and showing better-defined and broader edging; however, our bird on Linosa had such a pattern and we found this to be highly variable and often overlapping. The differences on wing-formula (like the length of P1 and the P1:PC ratio) are only helpful in the hand or in very close up good photos.

PRIMARY PROJECTION (PP): reported to be shorter in Ménétries’s, with primaries tips more bunched together; whereas PP is longer, narrower, and more pointed in Subalps, with 7 well spaced primaries. In our bird the PP was pretty short and the wing looked short and rounded; however, we found that some birds (some taxa) of the Subalpine complex, like for ex. Moltoni’s Warbler could show a shorter PP, on account possibly of their different migration pattern (the shorter distance migrants having a shorter PP). Could the Linosa bird be an inornata (as Moltoni’s was excluded straight away by the call) ? And does inornata, being from N Africa, really have a shorter PP? This should be further investigated …

BEHAVIOUR: behaviour is one of the most helpful identification clues for many birds, and is crucial is separating two very similar looking Sylvia like Tristram’s and Spectacled Warblers, as well as the two species we are discussing here – in fact Ménétries’s habit of constantly twisting and fanning its tail is not shared by Subalps, which usually hold their tail still or move it slightly up and down. Indeed, our bird always held its tail still.

We finally concluded, supported by Yoav Pearlman and Magnus Robb’s opinions on plumage and call features, that the bird was more likely a “Subalpine Warbler”, possibly a North African one (inornata).

PHOTOS OF MYSTERY SYLVIA WARBLER LINOSA NOVEMBER 2012 – MISC

1

  1. Sylvia Warbler, identified as “Subalpine Warbler” (sensulatu) from Linosa Island, Pelagie Archipelago (Agrigento, Sicily) from November 5th 2012. Note the very pale sandy coloured plumage with a richer tawny tinge on mantle, the bright contrasting throat with creamy-apricot or buffish tinged flanks and breast side, the very pale lores, the obvious eye-ring, the be-coloured bill, the yellowish-flesh legs and the short looking tail. (Igor Maiorano – MISC)2
  2. Same bird in flight; note the strikingly contrasting slaty blackish tail, almost solidly black on the distal portion, which combined to the white lateral side is giving to the bird an almost Red-breasted Flycatcher impression. This is typical of Ménétries’s Warbler rather than any juvenile “Subalpines”, but the tail was re-growing with an adult-type pattern and color, therefore darker than in juv. and obviously contrasting with the pale body. (Igor Maiorano – MISC)3
  3. Same bird. Note the very dark black alula with obvious pale fringing, reported in field guides to be more typically found in Ménétries’s Warbler rather than in “Subalpines”. However, we find this character highly variable and therefore of limited – if any- use. (MicheleViganò – MISC) 4
  4. Same bird in a different light and angle – note the dark centred tertials with well visible and contrasting being well defined pale fringing. This seems to be the clinching character for it being an odd Subalpine Warbler rather than a Ménétries’s Warbler. However, note that in the field the fringing where never so obvious and the contrast never appear such dramatic, appearing the tertials rather uniform ! It is hard indeed …!!(Michele Viganò – MISC) 5
  5. Same bird – note the similarities with the juv. Ménétries’s shown in fig. 15, especially the very pale lores giving a “wide open” face looking, the complete and wide pale eye-ring, the short and thick based bill (with a pale base, appearing horn-grey but that in the field shown a pinkish-flesh hue or tinge). (Michele Viganò – MISC) 6
  6. Same bird – note the tail pattern with T6 almost entirely white but a long narrow blackish sandy-grey “tongue” running along the outer margin of the inner web, like in most “Subalpines”, while T5 showing only a small white apical notch as in Mènètries’s. Note however that tail pattern is variable in the cantillans-complex and “Western Subalpines” including Moltoni’s W could show similar pattern as in our Linosa bird. (Michele Viganò – MISC) 7
  7. Same bird (Michele Viganò – MISC) 8
  8. Same bird- sonograms of the call. Note the clear and sharp tack or dgiack calls, readily different from Moltoni’s and double notes of albistriata, but what about inornata and Western Subalpines? What about the “dack” call type reported for Ménétries’s by Alstrom, et al. (1991) and some other references? Would be interesting to compare sonograms of all these taxa. (Michele Viganò – MISC) 9
  9. Typical tail pattern of Eastern taxa of “Subalpines”, where the T5 pattern is different from the Linosa bird and from typical adult Ménétries’s with an obvious “tooth” from the tip into the feather along the shaft. (A.Corso, Museo Civico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 10
  10. Typical T6 and T5 pattern of Eastern Subalps, with a quite long “tooth” or “tongue” on T5. (A.Corso, MuseoCivico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 11i
  11. Typical tail pattern of a Moltoni’s Warbler from Sardinia, showing T5 pattern like in Linosa bird and on adult Ménétries’s Warbler, showing only a small and defined “notch” on the tip of T5 (the call however is always different from those taxa). (A.Corso, Museo Civico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 12
  12. Same tail from below (A.Corso, Museo Civico di Zoologia di Roma, MCZR) 13i
  1. Bill seen from below in Sardinian (left) and Ménétries’s Warbler (right) to show the stronger, shorter and deeper based bill in the latter, similarly to the differences noticed when compared to Central and Western Subalpines taxa. (A. Corso, courtesy of Tring, NHM). 14i
  2. A beautiful 2nd cy male Ménétries’s Warbler from Israel. Note the diffuse dark centre on the new (moulted adult) middle tertial which also shown vague and diffuse fringing, differently to Subalpines and to Sardinian (Yoav Perlman). 15i
  3. A juv. Ménétries’s Warbler from Israel. Note that the bird is almost identical to the odd Sylvia from Linosa, and would be indeed identical if the tertials would not be typically more uniform, homogenously pale with only slightly darker suffuse center which contrast only barely with the unmarked, badly defined and not marked suffuse fringing. This would seems to be the clinching character to identify any juv. Subalpine from Ménétries’s. (Y.Perlman) 16
  4. Tail of the same juv. of Fig. 15 – note how much black is already in juvenile plumage, note the pattern of T6 with lot of black along the centre and along the shaft, and T5 fully black with a small white notch at the tip. Note as well the uniform tertials lacking any strong contrasting pattern. 17
  5. A typical adult female Ménétries’s Warbler from Eastern Turkey, Igdir (Michele Viganò- the MISC), June 2013. Note a very typical ad female with very uniform cold silk grey upperparts lacking almost altogether any rusty tinge, very dull underparts, broad diffuse greyish-brownish grey fringing to tertials, dull barely marked pale lores and the distinctive long-looking dark black tail. 18
  6. Same bird in different position. Note the short and blunt primary projection and the constantly moved tail in a cat-like fashion (as in Tristram’s Warbler and contrariwise in Subalpine and Spectacled). 19
  7. Same bird. Note the clear cut pattern of the T6 and the pattern of T5. 20
  8. A fresh juvenile Italian Subalpine Warbler. Note the bright rusty tinge to wings and head, the well demarked and defined pale lores and the pale tail. by Davide D’Amico21
  9. Same bird from different angle. Note as from some angle at least the central tail may appears rather blackish tinged , however, note the obvious and marked rusty tinge to crown (forming as a little “hat” against the pale lores and subtle supercilium). Underparts bright milky white by Davide D’Amico.
  10. Sound record of the call of the bird from Linosa <here>

Acknowledgements

We whish to thanks as always Dr. Carla Marangoni, curator of the ornithological section at MuseoCivico di Zoologia in Roma (MCZR), where a great collection of “Subalpine Warbler” (sensulatu) skins are preserved. On the same way a warm thanks goes to the Tring, NHM staff to which we are very much indebted for the most important help for any of our birds plumages studies : so a warm thanks goes to Katrina Kook, Robert-Pries Johanes, Mark Adams and the others working at Tring and that helped in various way.

Pintail / Swinhoe's Snipe

Swintail or Pinhoe’s?

On Thursday October 10th, two of my mates Eyal Shochat and Yaron Charka found this exciting Snipe at Ma’agan Michael on the Mediterranean Coast of Israel.

Pintail / Swinhoe's Snipe

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

The bird showed very well to me on Sunday. Very easy to separate from the many Common Snipes in the same muddy pool by chunky, full-bodied structure (almost like a small Woodcock or Great Snipe), rounded head, ‘open’ head pattern (very thin loral stripe), heavily barred underparts, and most important – the pattern of mantle, scapulars and tertials: faint central mantle stripes, with no lateral mantle stripes. Scaps have a symetric anchor pattern, with even-width fringes on both sides of feather, compared to common that has much more white or buff on the outer web.

Scapular pattern, Pin-tailed / Swinhoe's Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Scapular pattern, Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

This individual has a longish tail, on the long end of the spectrum for pin-tailed. Normally they have a very stubby tail, hardly protruding beyond the tertial tips. It had a unique behavious, in fact closer to a rail or crake – escaping on foot into the reeds when alarmed, rather than crouching down or flying away as Common Snipes do.

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe's Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13

Separating Pin-tailed Snipe from Swinhoe’s Snipe is practically impossible in the field (i.e. the excellent article by Leader and Carey (2003) in British Birds ). Both species share almost all features, incuding size and structure, overall tones, bill length etc. The only way known today to separate them is by the shape and structure of the thin outer tail feathers, impossible to see in the field in normal conditions. Also call might be useful but more research is needed on this topic so at the moment also calls don’t help. And anyway, compared to Common Snipe that normally gives a harsh ‘queck’ when flushed, Pin-tailed and Swinhoe’s are most often silent.

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

Pin-tailed Snipe, Kfar Ruppin, Israel, November 1998

There are three positive records of Pin-tailed Snipe in Israel – all three ringed – the first in 1984 by Hadoram et al. at Eilat, the second was found by Barak Granit and Rami Lindroos in November 1998 at Kfar Ruppin and I ringed it a couple of days later, and the last one was ringed by Yosef Kiat in November 2011 in Tsor’a. Apart for these records of Pin-tailed Snipe, another 6-7 Pin-tailed / Swinhoe’s were seen in the field (mainly in the Bet Shean Valley) but swinhoe’s could not be safely excluded, though by default I’d guess they were all pintails.

So what is this bird? This bird is rather large and heavy, with a long heavy bill and thick legs, all features associated with swinhoe’s in older literature, but this means nothing apparently. This bird was silent. Several guys (including myself) tried to get a shot of the open tail when it was preening but impossible to see the shape of the unique outer tail feathers.

Unbelievable that this species-pair cannot be separated in the field. I hope someone comes up with something new soon.

The tiny, reedy pond the snipe was in was just superb. I had there 3 Spotted Crakes, 5 Water Rails, 8 Citrine Wagtails, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers and tons of other birds (Sedge Warblers, Bluethroats etc.). A juvenile Eurasian Sparrowhawk missed a taste of exotic Asia and took a Common Snipe that was feeding just few meters away from the pintailed…

Citrine Wagtail, Ma'agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13.

Citrine Wagtail, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 13/10/13.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk on Common Snipe, Ma'agan Michael, 13/10/13.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk on Common Snipe, Ma’agan Michael, 13/10/13.

Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels – Book review

by Dani Lopez-Velasco

Pterodroma Petrels: Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds

by Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher

BOOK_COVER_NEW_SIZE

If I were asked to describe the new Pterodroma guide in just a few words, it would be simple: It´s an extraordinary piece of work that, amazingly, has even surpassed the impressive quality of the previous Multimedia Identification Guide, and thus is a must-have for any serious birder, no matter what their interest in petrels is.

On their second ID Guide to be published in the series North Atlantic Seabirds (the first one being Storm-petrels & Bulwer´s Petrel; with 2 others to be published in the future), Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher stick to the same general and highly innovative idea of combining moving video footage with photos, illustrations and text. All together, this guide approaches well the idea of how a “perfect” field guide should be.

The book,  which is over 300 pages long, and its accompanying 2 DVDs cover 9 species of Pterodroma Petrels: Trindade, Kermadec, Atlantic, Great-winged, Bermuda, Black-capped, Soft-plumaged, Fea´s (with Cape Verde and Desertas Petrel treated as two different subspecies of Fea´s Petrel, but both with their own accounts)  and Zino´s Petrel. To aid ID, species/taxa are presented in an order that places similar-looking species side by side, which I find very useful.

The first few pages are an overall introduction to the guide, in which the authors comment on various aspects of the book. The first section, Species Covered, reviews the taxonomy and status of nine Atlantic Pterodromas. Then comes an Overview about morphology, biology, conservation and other interesting Pterodroma issues. On the extensive, 30 pages long, Identification section, there´s  a whole deal of general information on the authors´s approach to Pterodroma ID, and aspects like jizz, size, plumage, flight behaviour and structure, which will be covered under each species account in the next section, are all fully addressed in great detail. I particularly liked this section, and I strongly recommend everyone going through it at least a couple of times.

The fourth section, Species Accounts, describes each species in great detail, starting with a range map (including approximate months in which the species is supposed to be in each area of its at-sea distribution), followed by taxonomy,  other names, conservation status, population size, Atlantic range (including number of records for some of the rarer species), main characteristics and molt.

pterodromas-sample

The amount of information under each species is truly impressive, and its clear that the authors have done a great deal of work to put all the available and disperse published information together. I am sure even the most acknowledged petrel experts will learn quite a few things after studying this section. I was surprised to learn that, for example, after the authors´s thorough review of at-sea sightings of Trindade Petrels in the North Atlantic, they found out that there´s an obvious reversal in morph ratios when comparing at-sea records  (most of them referring to dark morph birds) with Trindade island birds (the only known breeding colony in the Atlantic, where almost 2 thirds are pale morph birds!). Some explanations, like another unknown colony in the Atlantic dominated by dark morphs, are given, but as for now the puzzle remains unsolved.

Also of great interest is the information and plates on the 2 forms of Black-capped Petrels, mostly based on Steve Howell´s et al research. Everyone should take good note of this, as in the near future both forms might end up split. And If you are lucky enough to come across one of these highly desired pterodromas while on a pelagic in the WP (in the Azores most likely, as Killian Mullarney already did a few years ago…), you will want the bird to be properly identified to form level, which is not always as straightforward as it could seem.

I found few mistakes/errors in this section and they were only minor ones, for example, the Spanish Black-capped Petrel was seen c. 200 miles to the NWest of Fisterra, (thus in the Atlantic), not to the North East, as its written under the WP records section, as that would have meant it had been seen inside the Bay of Biscay, which wasn´t the case. But that´s about it, so the review work must have been very efficient.

Surely one of the best things of this book are the photographs, with over 350 used, many of them previously unpublished, and I know first-hand that the authors spent a considerable amount of time trying to get as many to suit their needs as possible.

Mike Danzenbaker´s stunning pics of the almost mythical Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel, taken  recently during  Bob´s pioneering pelagics off Bermuda, are definitely the best ones ever published of the species. Chris Sloan´s Trindade and Black-capped Petrel shots off  Hatteras are also mouth-watering staff,  and some of Brent Stephenson´s Kermadec Petrel and George Reszeter´s Fea´s pics are also amazing.  The pics of a Fea´s together with a Black-capped, and a Zino´s with a Bulwer´s, on page 49, are particularly impressive, and well worth seeing.

But It´s not just about the quality of the images though. In my opinion, one of the best things of the guide is the use of quite a few pics showings mid-range pterodromas, exactly as you would see them from a cruise ship or from  a headland. It´s of course nice to see high quality pics, showing plumage detail, but unless the bird comes to the chum, or makes a close pass, it will be difficult to see minor details as shown on full-frame photos. Therefore I think it´s really useful to also combine them with this kind of “lesser-quality” images (such as those on pages 32, 36-37), as they will show the general appearance and basic field features, those you will first see when the bird is distant (as will usually be the case!) better than any other image.

The second half of the book is focused almost entirely on identification, with a very comprehensive section on its own called Confusion Groups and Confusion Pairs. This section compasses species taxa that are sufficiently similar to cause confusion, and a very through and detailed review of all ID features that will help set them apart is given.

There are many comparison pictures, depicting similar looking species, side by side, in the same angle and posture, through the book, and particularly so in this section. For example, no less than 12 photos of Black-capped and Bermuda Petrels appear under that particular account (and yes, as you will see, some cahow can look surprisingly similar to hasitata!). I find  this very useful and much appreciated, as I think the easiest and quickest way for the brain to pick out differences between 2  similar species from photos, and help you create your own “mental image” of what to look for, is by having photographs of both species together, side by side. This also saves the reader a lot  of time, as you don´t have to go through endless  pages to reach photos of the other similar looking species.

The Fea´s complex account, mostly focused in the separation of Zino´s and Fea´s (Desertas and Cape Verde) is definitely the most comprehensive one ever published in a book, and will greatly help rarities committees to assess and reassess some of their records.  Most, but not all, of the information provided under this account is based on seabird guru, Hadoram Shirihai´s and colleagues, findings, which resulted in the groundbreaking paper  (in my opinion, one of the best ever ID papers written) published in BW in 2010.  In the Pterodroma book, Flood and Fisher give 5 main criteria, which, on a more user-friendly and a bit less-overcautious approach, will allow observers to identify a good percentage of Fea´s and Zino´s, provided good pics are taken.  Having said that, it must be stressed that the challenge in separating Fea´s and Zino´s at sea can´t be overstated: size and structure can easily fool us (i.e, in my experience, sometimes Fea´s Petrels can look surprisingly slim, light-built and smallish, and due to light refraction in the sea, underwing can falsely look whitish), so that´s the reason why good pictures are essential.  The possible extreme white-winged Zino´s -Bermuda Petrel pitfall, which probably wouldn´t have  come to mind to most seabirders a few years ago, is well covered with pics too.

If only, I did miss a bit of text (even if a short paragraph) on what a Fea´s-type Petrel looks like from land, i.e. on a seawatch, when most European sightings take place, with comments on first impressions, how to separate distant birds from a Cory´s or a Manx, which I´ve seen happening (remember that  with little wind, Fea´s-type Petrels might not fly like pterodromas at all, and depending on the light, the white underwing of some shearwaters can loook dark, etc..). This might not be worrying at all for experienced seabirders, but it might have been useful for more novice birders with little experience.

I particularly liked the inclusion of both Great Shearwater vs Black-capped Petrel and Sooty Shearwater vs Trindade Petrel on the Confusion Groups section. I´ve discussed  with friends many times both cases while on seawatches and pelagics in NW Spain, so It´s great to see them included here. I think most of us have wondered whether, for example, a distant B-C Petrel would be easy to pick out on a seawatch (don´t forget than some Great Shears can show complete and broad white collars, extensive white on the uppertail coverts, lack of brown in the belly, and with strong winds can fly quite pterodroma-like), or if a dark Trindade would easily stand amongst Sooties. Thus, the extensive information on these 2 cases can be particularly helpful for European and North American observers. It´s good to know  well in advance what to look for when confronted with any mega-rare seabird, so studying these things can make the difference of either nailing it or leaving it as possible, a nightmare for all of us!

Eleven interesting and varied insets are also included within the book, covering various issues. A few are well worth mentioning. Two deal with conversation (“Saving the Bermuda Petrel”  and “Saving the Zino´s Petrel”) and are truly inspiring. While reading them, you almost feel transported to the exciting moment when both species were rediscovered, after many years thought to be extinct. A good deal of information on the critical recovery programs, essential for the  survival of these 2 endangered species, is also given.

Reagarding ID, the short one on the “Snowy-winged Petrel” seen by Shirihai et al off Madeira addresses the various explanations for this odd-looking bird, favouring the aberrant option. I am not entirely happy with this, as the pattern (both underwing, face and upperwing) doesn’t seem to me like that of an aberrant bird, but as for now, no one can´t know what the right option is.

A long inset on the highly debated “Varanger Petrel”, seen by Graham Catley in Varanger, N Norway, in June 2009, is also included, in which the authors comment in depth on the features of the bird, and the pros and cons for the bird being an acceptable Soft-plumaged Petrel (S-p P).

I can´t consider myself an expert in Soft-plumaged Petrel, but, still, I think, unlike other people, that this bird is a Soft-plumaged Petrel,  an acceptable one indeed, and I have the strong feeling that the first impression with this bird is the right one. Given how important this record is (a first for the North Atlantic) I want to include here are a few personal thoughts which might be worth considering, involving some of the points of the text which  I don´t fully agree with (even though we both reach the same important conclusion, that the bird is a S-p P). I can of course be wrong, in fact I might probably be, but here are my thoughts anyway…

First, Regarding the “rarity” status of the possible candidates, I think its important to take into account that  2 other mega-rare seabirds which range in the Southern  Atlantic, on the same areas as Soft-plumaged Petrels, have already made it to Norway (this is quite relevant in my opinion) : Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and Cape Petrel.  With  so far no other records of any other Pterodroma petrels (Fea´s/Zino´s) in the Norwegian coast, I would say that the chances of a “strayed” Zino´s  up in Varanger are probably pretty similar to those of a “lost” Soft-plumaged.  i.e, I´d say a Zino’s Petrel  isn´t more likely as a candidate as a Soft-plumaged Petrel.

As for molt, bleaching and wear, not much is know on moult/wear/bleaching on these Pterodroma petrels (in fact, all moult schedules of Zino´s, Cape Verde, Desertas…. are merely assumptions. And how much is known on variation in wear patterns of Soft-plumaged Petrel? Just take gulls. I love gulls too, and spend a lot of time with them. The variation of wear on the same species (consider my local Yellow-legged Gulls for example), at the very same spot is incredible. Some birds are in pristine plumage in early winter, and others are already very bleached and worn. Same species, same place, different patterns of wear.  I assume the same could apply to Soft-plumaged Petrel too. So, taking that into account, as well as the fact that a lost Soft-plumaged Petrel in the North Atlantic could easily show atypical wear patterns, I  think it´s probably a bit unsafe to say that “the state of bleaching and wear doesn´t fit with a typical Soft-plumaged Petrel”.

I don´t fully agree either with some of the  comments referring to the  question “what are the chances of an extreme vagrant being anomalous?, mostly because It doesn’t seem that  extremely  “anomalous” to me for being a S-p P, (i.e: it´s not an albino bird (now that would be really anomalous..), It doesn’t have fully white underwings, it doesn’t have a broken breast band… etc.). So, even if it does have a couple of relatively atypical features, I wonder myself if it´s really that worrying…

Anyway, as a summary I would say the “strong” pointers for Soft-plumaged Petrel (apparently complete breast band,  compact structure and general shape, head pattern, restricted white throat, seemingly lack of contrast between tail/UTC and back, etc…) are much stronger than the “strong” pointers to feae complex. Their degree of evidence, as called in statistics, seems much higher to my eyes.

So, to sum up. I think the analysis of the bird is a really detailed, in depth, and, overall, extremely accurate one. I also understand that, being very strict and critical, then if a couple, in my opinion, relatively minor, atypical features, are considered, then it could be stated that this is not an acceptable Soft-plumaged Petrel, especially being a first for the North Atlantic. But, nevertheless, I still think that Bob and Ashley are right in reaching the conclusion that the bird is a S-p P,  and that the Norwegian Rarities Committee has also done well in taking the risk and accepting it as a first for Norway.

Back to the book, several  plates with color illustrations for each species/taxon, by Martin Elliott, are included. I think using color plates instead of black and white drawings, as in the previous Multimedia Guide, is a notable improvement. Elliott´s work  is overall pretty good, real and accurate, although I do find a lesser degree in detail compared to Ian Lewington´s or Killian Mullarney´s drawings.

Following the main text are a long references list, acknowledgments, appendices and an ID jogger (a complete bullet point summary of the key ID features of all North Atlantic pterodromas).

And, to finish, we have the most innovative and groundbreaking part of the book, and the one that sets it apart from all other seabird guides and makes it really “special” : the 2 DVDs.

There´s no other bird group in which a conventional guide might be less useful in terms of identification as in seabirds. On 99 per cent of the times, you won´t be able to see fine plumage details on a seawatch. Don´t expect to see the brown belly of a Great Shearwater or the long tail streamers of a Long-tailed Skua. That´s what birders on their first seawatches expect to see, and usually leave rather disappointed, and also incredulous, when they realize those features aren´t needed for a right ID of a distant bird. Seeing the “M” pattern on the wing/back of a Fea´s type Petrel from land (one of the first , if not the first, things that one expects to see after looking at the plate in the field guide, as was my case before seeing my first one) isn´t always easy, especially due to lighting, and there are other much more striking features when seen in the distance, whatever a guide says. That´s why plates aren´t so useful with seabirds, and the reason why the DVD of the whole series of Atlantic Seabirds series are so important. They provide with “real-life” encounters with the petrels . Explaining in words the way a pterodroma flies is a personal and not an easy thing to do, and, in my case, if I had never seen one before, I would struggle in forming an accurate mental image of their flight after reading various flight descriptions. So this is the reason why footage is essential, helping observers to experience them as if they were at sea, but from the comfort of their homes! It´s true that, unlike in Storm-petrels, flight is not crucial for separating one species of pterodroma from another, as their general jizz and flight is quite similar, but, still, it will give you an idea of what they look at sea, greatly improving the chances of picking one up if you haven’t seen one before.

Given how difficult is to see, let alone film pterodromas at sea, its a remarkable achievement that the authors have managed to cover all species treated in the book. The footage, bearing in mind it´s amateur, could be rated as good to very good, especially for the purpose its been done: be representative of the pelagic families treated by the books. Although sometimes a bit shaky,  the important thing , and what we all want it for, i.e, to assist ID and bring to life a bird in motion, has been successfully achieved, and the authors should be congratulated for it.

The commentary  and clips of the DVDs focuses mostly on ID; but 2 sets of interviews are included and most welcome: one with David Wingate and Jeremy Madeiros, talking about  the Bermuda Petrel rescue project on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, and, another with Frank Zino about the conservation history of Zino’s Petrels in Madeira.

Regarding the edition, the book has been designed and laid out by the authors, but, nevertheless, they should be proud of how it has turned out, looking highly professional. I am particularly impressed by the printing, as the photos look very good, better than on many professional publishing house books.  My only minor criticism would be that it can be difficult and time-consuming, at times, to find certain sections or species, as there´s no obvious species name / section name on top or bottom of each page, which i think would have greatly helped  in finding each species or section quicker. Perhaps they might take note of this for future books.

As a summary, this groundbreaking guide certainly provides the most comprehensive, updated and detailed treatment of arguably the most desired of all Atlantic seabirds: Pterodromas, or Gadfly Petrels as are also called, with a very extensive collection of photographs and a wealth of useful information, mostly based on the authors´s own very extensive at-sea experience. For those of you who don´t know them,  Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher pioneered pelagic trips from the Scillies in the early 2000s, where amongst other things, discovered that Wilson´s Petrel was a regular migrant off the islands in late summer, as well as found several first for Britain during their trips. Bob also co-rediscovered the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, thought to be extinct for many years, and has been on hundreds of pelagic trips all over the world, so his background with tubenoses is clearly enormous. Apart from that, you can feel that both authors are not just interested in seabirds, but love them and have a real passion for their conservation too, which has been well reflected in the book.

No matter whether you live inland or in the coast, if you are more of a raptor or gull fan than a seabird enthusiastic, or even if you get seasick and dont plan to go on any pelagic trip in your life, this book is a must-have, and it should be on the shelf (and along on the boat!) of any serious birder. I can assure you it will surpass even your highest expectations.

You can order your copy here http://www.scillypelagics.com/Multimedia_ID_Guide_SP_PTER.html 

Thanks to the information on the Pterodroma guide, as well as on Shirihai´s work,  we can say that this Fea´s Petrel nicely captured by David Monticelli on our last pelagic off Lanzarote is most likely a Cape Verde, given underwing score of 0-1, intermediate bill size and shape, state of plumage, etc.. One of the first candidates in the WP outside the Cape Verdes

Thanks to the information on the Pterodroma guide, as well as on Shirihai´s work, we can say that this Fea´s Petrel nicely captured by David Monticelli on our last pelagic off Lanzarote is most likely a Cape Verde, given underwing score of 0-1, intermediate bill size and shape, state of plumage, etc.. One of the first candidates in the WP outside the Cape Verdes

Isabelline Wheatear

by Dani Lopez-Velasco.

In mainland Spain we basically have 2 big problems for finding rare passerines. First is the very poor coverage of the best areas due to very few active birders, and second is the lack of suitable islands/islets, which, as you all know, are usually the best places to look for these birds.

This means that scarce birds in the UK, like Yellow-browed Warblers or Red-breasted Flycatchers, are quite rare here, and birds like Dusky and Radde´s Warblers, or OB Pipits, are almost Megas, with less than 10 records ever.

For many years, it was assumed that the west coast of Galicia (in NW Spain), at least in theory and based on the large numbers of american waders, gulls and waterfowl that had been found over the years, should be good for north american passerines. However, due to the 2 problems commented above, only Yellow-rumped Warbler (20 years ago), and Buff-bellied Pipit have been seen. Not even a Red-eyed Vireo has been found (yet!). On the other hand though, the general assumption, for years, was that it shouldn´t be good at all for eastern/siberian birds, due to the area being much further west than, for example, the mediterranean coast of Spain, thus further away for these sibes to reach it.

However, a few years ago It became clear for some of us, after realizing that Kerry and Cork in Ireland, and Cornwall in the UK, both in the SW, were getting quite a lot of sibes, that the “land´s-end”, almost island-like effect, should also work over here.

So, with that in mind,  and inspired by, amongst others, the Punkbirders, I started scouting the NW corner of Galicia in search of an appropriate area to look for passerines. After a couple of trips, I decided that the area around Finisterre (which, translated into english, means land´s end), which is the westernmost headland in Spain, could possibly be the spot to look for both north american and eastern passerines. As for the latter,  I thought disorientated birds flying SW would see that the land (and Europe indeed!) ended there, and might probably stop, thus producing some sort of “bottle-neck” effect. The whole area should also be good for north american waders and gulls which could also keep us entertained, so I started visiting it in early October 2011.  The main areas to concentrate on  would be 2 fairly open headlands, a couple of beaches with dunes, bushes and trees, similar to many of the best spots in Ouessant, and a lagoon a bit further south.

Map showing the location of Finisterre, in the NW corner of Spain.

Map showing the location of Finisterre, in the NW corner of Spain.

On my first visit, no passerines were found, but as a consolation prize we found Spotted, Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Not bad.  Next weekend saw me covering the area again, and, finally, a juvenile Rose-colored Starling (very rare here) was found. It seemed that the area could produce eastern birds then… I drew a blank on the next trip but later, on the last weekend of October, everything changed. On my second morning, I was lucky enough to find a Dusky Warbler, which was the first-ever non-ringed bird to be seen in Spain. Quite a lot of people came to see it, and at the same time, a Yellow-browed Warbler was also found at the same place.

Mar de Fora beach, in Finisterre. The dunes in the middle of the image hosted the Isabelline Wheatear, whereas the trees in the left hosted a Dusky Warbler and 5 YBW 2 autumns ago.

Mar de Fora beach, in Finisterre. The dunes in the middle of the image hosted the Isabelline Wheatear of this post, whereas the trees in the left hosted a Dusky Warbler and 5 YBW 2 autumns ago. This is probably THE place in Spain to look for north american passerines.

Over the next november weekends, a completely unprecedented in Spain 5 Yellow-browed Warblers were seen, together, in the same little forest. Jose Luis Copete and Ferran Lopez joined me on one of my trips and also found a Siberian Chiffchaff… And several Richard´s Pipits and Lapland Buntings were also found wintering in one of the headlands.

It was quite clear by then that the area was indeed  good for siberian birds (bear in mind that only 1-2 observers were covering a pretty large area!) and well worth the effort of traveling 300 km one way from my house on each trip. I live in the northern coast of Spain (Asturias), which is pretty good for passerines too, having found a nice selection of sibes so far, but of course over hundreds of days in the field, so i thought the Finisterre area should be better.

In December, no more passerines were found, but an adult American Herring Gull, the first for mainland Europe, was a nice self-find at the same place.

Last autumn I couldn´t visit the area more than a couple of times, so no conclusions could be made, the only thing of note being a self-found White-rumped Sandpiper, and an American Golden Plover, but sadly no passerines.

This year, I made my first trip to the area last weekend. And, on my first morning, I struck gold, finding a great looking and very showy Isabelline Wheatear.

As usual with finding rare birds, I was about to leave the beach (the same one that hosted the Dusky Warbler), when I decided to make a final check in the dunes. I had seen some Northern Wheatears earlier, but then I saw, with the naked eye, a very pale bird on top of a dune. I got my bins on it, and instantly realized it was an Isabelline Wheatear, and a very pale individual indeed! I took some shaky record shots,  and then called some friends.

First record shot I took of the bird, just as I found it. The very pale impression and upright stance were very obvious

First record shot I took of the bird, just as I found it. The very pale impression and upright stance were very obvious

The bird was seen very well through the day, favoring a boardwalk, where it sat for long periods of time, allowing birders to get very close, just a few metres, to it.

The general impression and structure changed dramatically depending on the bird´s posture. Here, it doesn't look particularly long-legged. Note the faint and diffuse centres to the wing covers and tertials.

The general impression and structure changed dramatically depending on the bird´s posture. Here, it doesn’t look particularly long-legged. Note the faint and diffuse centres to the wing covers and tertials. Dani Lopez-Velasco

Check how long-legged looks here, compared to the previous picture!

Check how long-legged looks here, compared to the previous picture!

Bill in Isabelline Wheatears is usually noticeably longer and stockier than on Northern.

Bill in Isabelline Wheatears is usually noticeably longer and stockier than on Northern. Dani Lopez-Velasco

The bird did show well...

The bird did show well… Ageing, and sexing, in the autumn is not easy. The relatively dark lores could point towards a male, and as they arent well marked, perhaps a 1w male. Any ideas or comments would be most welcome! Dani Lopez-Velasco

My story with Isabelline Wheatear in Spain is kind of funny. I “found” the first for mainland Spain in the internet, on a picture labelled as Northern. Hours later (!!), I identified in the field the second one, but it had been found by a good friend of mine, who wasn’t sure about what it was. No self-found then. So it was about time to really find one in the field. 🙂

As a conclusion, it´s pretty clear that both the Finisterre area and the whole NW and W coast of Galicia is very good for siberian and eastern birds,  better than the Cantabric coast, which would be “closer” to them.  Isabelline (Daurian) Shrike, Olive-backed Pipit, Booted Warbler, etc… have all been found within the last few years in the west coast of galicia, with only less than 10 birders actively looking… and here´s a very eye-catching fact: Of the 5 mainland Spain Isabelline Wheatear records, 4 (!) have been seen in the NW Coast of Galicia, in a 40 x 40 km triangle, with Finisterre in one of the corners. And the same triangle has hosted 4 Desert Wheatears…

I wonder what will be next… A Palla´s Leaf-Warbler is long overdue over here!